Most of my friends would say I’m an imaginative person. This isn’t to brag, as its a skill I have cultivated, and one that is necessary to being a writer and a philosopher. It’s a skill that enables me to look at an issue from a variety of viewpoints and extrapolate possible consequences, and pick at areas that have heretofore been unexplored. It’s also, in some cases insufficient.
That’s because there are some things I simply can’t imagine either by virtue of not having the experiences that would lead me to think that way, or not being exposed to enough creativity from others. Creativity and imagination is a cycle, and they feed off of each other and off of other creative and imaginative acts.
These skills are not just useful in fiction, however. They are crucial to innovation, and also to safety. This is doubly true when it comes to emerging technologies.
Technology and Innovation
When writing this article I was reminded of a meme from my high school days (yes, too recently, I know), about how easy it was to kill someone with an iPod. This isn’t the exact meme, but it’s close. It details 8 different, imaginative ways in which you could use an iPod as a weapon. It’s cute, and not very serious, but I do think it elicits a facet of technology which everyone seems to be worried about but no one seems able to solve: that technologies are incredibly versatile and powerful tool, and like all incredibly versatile and powerful tools they can be used to harm in ways in which it is very hard to imagine at the outset of design.
Which brings me to the main thrust of today’s article: the phenomena of “smart home” technology being used as a means of domestic abuse. Funnily enough, although this phenomena is also explored in an excellent short story by Madeline Ashby, it is far from fiction, and in fact is rapidly becoming a more frequent focus of phone calls to domestic shelters.
According to the NCADV, approximately 1 in 3 women, and 1 in 4 men will be the victim of physical domestic abuse in their lifetime. There are less good statistics on non-physical domestic abuse, but estimates place it around 50% for both genders. Psychological abuse can take many forms, but usually includes some kind of gaslighting. Gaslighting itself can take a number of forms but the intent is usually the same: to destabilize the victim, make them devalue themselves, and make them feel as if they are going crazy. Traditionally, abusers have accomplished this through techniques like isolating, lying, and manipulation.
Enter smart home technology. Smart home technology encompasses a broad umbra of technologies which are used to control & monitor technological devices in the home, usually remotely, to ease one’s life. They can be used to control lights, heat, sounds, locks, and more. Essentially, they are supposed to give one more power over one’s environment more easily, and can be used to keep children safe, monitor pets, and generally improve one’s quality of life.
However, in cases where a partnership lacks a power balance, and one person controls the technology, this can lead to cases of them being able to control, destabilize, and harass the other person using smart technologies. Given that a proficiency with technology is usually held by one party, or even if the proficiency is equal, the passwords are held by one party, the only recourse to victims is to forcibly remove or destroy that technology, which can lead to escalation and further violence. Victims who excise abusers from their home may still be left with technologies that can be used by their abusers remotely.
Now, many of the ways that abuse can come about through smart technologies may seem innocuous: climate control, strange music and sounds, and doors locking and unlocking seemingly at random do not seem like traditional torture techniques, but one can imagine that until one discovers the source of unexplained phenomena of these kinds ones might think themselves to be a subject in a horror movie. And, in fact, there have been cases of psychiatric holds being put on victims because when they reported these events they were suspected of being mentally ill. (Yet another reason believing victims is so important.)
What Can Be Done?
As you guys probably know by now, my recourse is not going to be to suggest, “ban all smart-home technologies.” What I am going to say is that this is an example where inclusive design could have been a benefit.
Technologies are largely engineering, designed, and implemented by men. While domestic violence happens to both genders, so far, this phenomena of smart home-enabled domestic violence is largely perpetrated by men. I firmly believe that women are just as capable at using, designing, and engineering technology as men are- but there are still exclusionary practices are work in the job market and other places which discourage women from acquiring these skills. Furthermore, many smart home technologies are not user friendly, or safe- in the sense that many are extremely vulnerable to hacking. Including women in the design process could aid in foreseeing these eventualities and preventing them.
We could imagine safeguards on these technologies such as an in-home physical master control, limitations on how many times they can be activated remotely, especially if someone is manually countering the remote activities. We can educate people on their use so that victims don’t feel helpless and can better understand what might be going on in their environment- therefore stopping the feeling of “being crazy”. And for people who choose to employ these technologies, we can criticize them if they use them in a way that contributes to a power imbalance. Ideally, in homes that employ these technologies, even if they are installed by one person, the other person should be educated as to how to control them so as to ensure everyone is on the same power level.
Incidentally, after writing this post, this guide came out advising how to go about reclaiming smart home technologies (although, if you’re still living with your abuser, the techniques advocated may still put you at risk for increased violence.)
As with all of my missives on technology, the key is that we cannot anticipate everything, but we can do a much better job if we think of the most vulnerable groups that technology can impact, and prioritize their experiences and needs so that we do not further entrench existing inequalities and violence.